A little known provision of President Bush’s recently signed education act threatens to withhold federal funds from public schools that prohibit use of school facilities by groups that discriminate against gays and lesbians, such as the Boy Scouts.
The provision, couched in language prohibiting discrimination against private or religious charity organizations, appears designed to put the federal government’s support behind anti-homosexual groups such as the Boy Scouts in their disputes with public schools.
“This is a gratuitous anti-gay amendment that does not belong in school policy,” said Mary Kate Cullen, Director of Public Policy for the Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network (GLSEN). “It’s silly, punishing schools over this.”
The new law also affects school bans on military recruiters, such as in Portland, OR, which were enacted because of the military’s stance against openly gay members. Further, the law forces schools to turn over student information to the military upon request, including students’ names, addresses, and phone numbers. Students, however, retain the right to “opt out” and file a written statement that they do not want their personal information released.
Under Boy Scout rules, openly homosexual boys are asked to leave the group. In June 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America is a private organization and can set membership rules any way it wants to. Several districts, such as Berkeley, CA or St. Paul, MN, have denied the Scouts access to school buildings on the grounds that Boy Scout policy undermines the districts’ attempt to provide places free of discrimination for all students.
The recent federal provision was sponsored by Rep. Van Hilleary (R-TN) and ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC). It passed the House by a voice vote and passed the Senate 51-49. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) called the bill “a stunning federal mandate” that cuts at “the essence of local control.”
There is often confusion over the difference between schools merely allowing the Boy Scouts and similar groups to use school facilities and schools actually sponsoring a Boy Scout Troop. GLSEN has launched a campaign to notify schools superintendents that the new federal law requires Scout access to schools but does not force schools to sponsor Scout troops.
Rita Addessa, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force, notes that “while the act does not require schools to sponsor BSA [Boy Scouts of America] troops, the Administration and legislators’ message is clear to wit – It’s okay, especially, to leave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered kids behind.”